‘Growing Up Trans’ gives voice to a new generation of transgender kids

Growing Up Trans — the new Frontline documentary from directing duo Miri Navasky and Karen O’Connor — tells the stories of eight transgender kids and teenagers, ages 9 to 19, and their journeys transitioning at a young age.

“I am transgender,” 9-year-old Lia says at the film’s start. “I was born male and identify as female. But I like to say I’m a girl stuck in a boy’s body.”

The documentary is almost two years in the making, and predominantly told from the perspective of the kids themselves, along with their parents and doctors. Navasky and O’Connor felt it was important that trans youth should be able to tell their stories on their own terms — and the result is a remarkably intimate, emotional, and very honest film.

“We realized there are so many different factors: Parental support, parental non-support, male to female, female to male, kids socially transitioning, kids starting puberty blockers, kids starting hormones, older kids undergoing surgery,” O’Connor tells HelloGiggles. “We wanted to show a full range of experiences if we could, and the differences within it.”

While trans visibility has definitely been on the rise in the last couple years thanks to people like Caitlyn Jenner, Janet Mock, and Laverne Cox, there’s still so much work to be done when it comes to how we talk about gender and how we treat those who aren’t cis. According to a study at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, 41% of transgender and gender-nonconforming youth have attempted suicide in their lives. The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that one in five transgender people will be homeless at some point (and that rates of attempted suicide are higher for homeless transgender youth). These are horrifying, heartbreaking numbers — and the only way we can begin to change them is through better representation across the board.

Diverse trans representation has never been more important, and there is no one narrative for people who are trans or gender-nonconforming (just like there is no one narrative for someone of any identity). By bringing attention to a diversity of stories, Growing Up Trans helps to shed light on just how varied our experiences with gender can be — and how important it is that we work towards becoming more accepting of all of them.

“I had very little clue about what we were going to find. . . But my eyes were opened as a parent in a way that blew me away,” Navasky says. “I didn’t really realize how much ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ is divided in our lives every day, in ways that are unmoving — and how solidified it is with kids so young, and how aware they are.”

“These are tough dilemmas for parents who are trying to do right by their kids,” she continues. “At the same time, when you allow these kids to articulate their experiences, you see gender in a new way.”

Growing Up Trans is as honest as it is hopeful. It is informative about the options trans youth have to postpone the unwanted puberty of their biological sex, while addressing some of the unknown, long-term risks that makes the decision to use these options difficult for some families. The trans kids in the film are also completely open about just how difficult and painful gender dysmorphia can be.

However, the documentary also feels hopeful that things are slowly getting better — and that the new generation is becoming both more accepting and better equipped medically to give transgender kids the options they need. Both Ariele and Alex (two of the film’s main teens) have close friends who are completely nonplussed by the fact they’re transgender (because why would they be?). Kyle (another featured teen) admits that he discovered the word “transgender” thanks to Tumblr, and is quick to discuss just how incredible a resource and community that the Internet can be.

But ultimately, the most important message of the film was its response to the ever-looming question, “How can someone know so young?” Through listening to their stories, it seems incredibly obvious: How could they not?

“You can hear about it and you can read about it, but when you hear these kids take you through their own deeply felt experiences, something shifts. It’s just much more than you could have known otherwise,” O’Connor says.

“In some ways, when people think about [gender identity] — if they think about it at all — it feels remote, it feels like ‘the other,’ it feels like the fringe somehow. And I think people will feel through these kids how relatable they are, and how relatable the parents are,” she says. “I hope that it cuts through something, and that it shifts from ‘the other’ to something more relatable.”

The film is a part of Frontline’s documentary series. You can watch Growing Up Trans online right here, or check your local listings on PBS here.

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(Image via video.)